Carole Johnstone – Mirrorland (Blog Tour)
Published by Borough Press, hardback £12.99. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.
First, the official blurb: No. 36 Westeryk Road, an imposing flat-stone house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. A house of curving shadows and crumbling grandeur. But it’s what lies under the house that is extraordinary – Mirrorland. A vivid make-believe world that twin sisters Cat and El created as children. A place of escape, but from what? Now in her thirties, Cat receives the shocking news that her sister has disappeared. Forced to return to Edinburgh, Cat finds herself irresistibly drawn back into Mirrorland. Because El has a plan. She’s left behind a treasure hunt that will unearth long-buried secrets…
Ellice (El) has gone missing. She sailed alone from a yacht club at Granton harbour, Edinburgh and hasn’t been seen since. Her twin, Catriona (Cat), comes back from the US to the house where the twins grew up, which now belongs to El and her husband, Ross. The twins have been estranged for many years and the memories that linger in every corner are frequently dark, twisted and frankly weird – especially the memories of the make-believe games they played, which were less games and more rituals to keep the shadows at bay.
Convinced that El is faking her disappearance, jet-lagged and overwhelmed by memories, Cat uncovers the door in the pantry that led to Mirrorland, a hidden part of the house the twins roamed as children. For half a second I wondered if this was going to be a step into Narnia, but while Mirrorland contained the world, it was firmly a creation of their imaginations. Among other things, El and Cat made it a cowboy saloon, and a prison, but most of all they made part of it into a pirate ship to sail the oceans in search of treasure, and their father – always making sure to keep ahead of the fearsome Blackbeard, just as they had to avoid at all costs Bluebeard on “dry land”. The link with Scottish literary giant RL Stevenson could not be plainer, in the background of a world where the twins’ mother reads them fairy tales and classic novels from Papillon to Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which provide fodder for Mirrorland games and hints to the reader about what the mother is really trying to teach them.
It’s not just Cat and El – and later Ross, who in their childhood lived next door, and Mouse, the daughter of The Witch, their mother’s actually-not-very-nice friend – who visit Mirrorland, it’s filled with people: shipmates, clowns, the cowboy saloon’s bartender. A fantasy world so rich that the real world could never compete. Or is it a fabulous fantasy world to compensate for something lacking in real life?
There’s a police investigation which seems to have definitive answers about El. But who sends the card, addressed to Cat, with its blunt message: LEAVE? Who emails her the treasure hunt clues that lead to pages of El’s childhood diary and stir up memories Cat had long buried? She is forced to remember their games, their rituals, the youthful cruelties (El and Ross joining forces against Cat, and, in turn, Ross and Cat against El. Three is not always the magic number.)
Who knows El better? The sister she hasn’t spoken to for years? The grieving husband (who finds a singular way of simultaneously forgetting and remembering her – though I’m not sure whether his actions are believable or stereotyped male fantasy)? The two neighbourhood friends Cat meets in the local shop? Do none of them know El? Is the treasure hunt some elaborate form of gaslighting of Cat?
If you are not a fan of the melodrama, slightly preposterous behaviours and perpetual sensation of reality vanishing from your grasp that is Gothic, I’m not sure you’ll enjoy this novel – but if you are, you will find much to enthrall here as the blocks are stacked up unsteadily on foundations that turn out to be irreparably fractured. Every time I felt I was getting a grip on the story, it jinked and shimmied and writhed out of my grasp. I felt lost in a maze of distorting circus mirrors – I had no idea who to believe, because everyone is plausible right up to the moment they aren’t. But everything is laid out in front of us, if we would only look properly at what we are being shown.
The dangers move from make-believe ocean storms to real-life threats, and there are several moments when I held my breath. The final part of the novel tests the reader’s suspension of disbelief, but it is in keeping with the Gothic mayhem that has gone before – and is also in keeping with the fact El and Cat were raised on so many fairy tales and stories of imprisonment and escape, so I think just rolling with it is the best response.
Mirrorland is devious, frequently dark and until the latter pages dodges away from you when you try to look at it closely. It takes on several genre tropes and doesn’t avoid all the beartraps that come with them, and in its delicacy in dealing with tough, terrible issues it slightly pulls its punches. But elsewhere it is more assured: serious matters are not dropped in and discarded as mere plot devices, we seen the fallout affecting the twins for the whole of their lives, and the knotty plot has freshness. And Johnstone expertly takes us back to childhood fears and fantasies, particularly that heart-pounding sensation that something is with us when we are in a dark place. If you are of a sensitive disposition, reading this novel in broad daylight would not be a bad idea.
Carole Johnstone’s award-winning short fiction has been reprinted in many annual ‘Best of’ anthologies in the UK and the US. She lives in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, with her husband. Mirrorland is her debut novel.